Paid internships set the activity rate at source

New Mexico’s dismal worker turnout can be fixed faster if we focus on young people — especially high school students at risk of disengagement.

Recently, Journal staff wrote an op-ed setting out the root causes and solutions to our state’s economic rut. A powerful solution that has been overlooked: paid internships for high school students.

Over the past five years, local nonprofits and employers have worked quietly together to forge a new labor pool, beginning before students leave high school. Future Focused Education’s X3 and X3 NeXt Paid Internship Programs have grown to over 130 employers and 850 placements – and have paid interns nearly $1 million for their hard work.

This is a hugely successful build your own workforce strategy because it focuses on connecting our schools, employers and youth to meet to long-term needs.

The important distinction is that X3 internships focus on students at risk of dropping out, disconnecting, or drifting away from college/career. Most internship programs provide professional opportunities for the most successful students, leaving behind those who need a little extra support.

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on disengagement rates across the country, and New Mexico has been hit the hardest. A recent study by The Measure of America found that disengagement is at an all-time high: 19.6% of our young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are disengaged – not working and not in school.

That means there are nearly 48,000 unattached youth in New Mexico. Make no mistake, there are real costs associated with this disaster, and those costs are being paid for by our communities.

In The Economics of Investing in Opportunity Youth report, the estimated social costs of disengaged youth over their lifetime was $900,000. Even without accounting for inflation over the past decade, that’s a staggering amount. Crime, social services, drug addiction and lost wages are all making us poorer, and we need to do something about it.

The Journal’s editorial team have insisted that we need to enroll more students in vocational/technical education, which is a good suggestion – but how can we enroll them if they opt out before they have graduated?

We need to give young people opportunities other than dead-end jobs that keep them out until midnight – which competes with their efforts to graduate. Many of these young people come from low-income families and must work to support their households.

Paid internships are the answer to fix the activity rate at source. The state of New Mexico has allocated federal pandemic relief funds to employ young people for the past two summers. They launched the Innovation Zone initiative with the Department of Public Education, which has invested millions of dollars in paid internships for young people through its Emergency Relief Fund for Elementary and Secondary Schools ( ESSER). Participation in the program has been impressive.

The X3 and X3 NeXt programs have also shown great promise. Not only do these students gain meaningful work experience that positions them for higher-paying careers, but they also get something even more valuable: a network of caring adults and mentors who support their growth, caring adults who hold themselves accountable for their graduation and professional development goals.

The beauty of the X3 program is that it meets students where they are and connects them with mentors and professional leaders, which pays long-term dividends to them, their employers, and our communities.

Tony Monfiletto is the executive director of Future Focused Education, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit organization.

Michael A. Bynum